The generic quote of ‘leaders never stop learning’ is so true, but how do we make it a reality? Here, we examine how these leaders become ‘learning leaders’. Where their learning and development is integral to who they are and how they operate in their organisations. It is part of their leadership DNA.

Choosing your learning attitude

Becoming a learning leader doesn’t just happen. It’s a conscious choice to let go of the past and think and behave differently. Letting go of old habits and developing new ones. Getting up every day with a mindset that is open to learning. 

The learning leader will be the first to say they have never learned, achieved or accomplished enough. They are very intentional about making learning part of how they operate as a leader. Part of their DNA. By doing this a thinking, behaviour and language shift happens. Part of this is about remaining teachable and curious about everything.

Learning is everywhere

Those leaders who continually look ‘down’ focusing on tasks activities and figures are unlikely to become learning leaders. Those who stay in their safe environments are unlikely to grow their leadership. By looking up and around, always scanning, connecting people, ideas, information, presents learning opportunities. This type of leader is a questioning leader, questioning to understand, explore and learn. The more they do this the more the make sense of information and contextualise it to their own organisational environments. 

The reflective leader

The ability to reflect is a subconscious and conscious activity. It is one of the most powerful in the moment activities a leader can do. Consciously thinking about situations, behaviours, feedback and approaches allows leaders to become self-aware of HOW they are leading and the impact of their leadership. This reflection is inclusive of present thoughts, feelings and emotions. So, learning leaders learn how to consciously reflect.

The learning leader isn’t just about acquiring knowledge, instead achieving deep seated personal learning, change and growth.

Finally, by actively reflecting we engage in double and triple loop learning. We begin to understand what, how and why we say and do things.


Outside of formal ‘classroom’ development opportunities abound to grow as a leader:

  • A senior leader I worked with always had some leadership book or autobiography book on the go. Keep reading articles, journals. Tap into Harvard Business Review, Forbes, industry publications etc. Look into research and latest thinking. Reflecting continually to contextualise and apply.
  • Utilise internal consultants – at some point your organisation will use them, so why not tap into this expertise…
  • Industry events. Go to these with a clear agenda or purpose around your own development. Also, go to events outside your normal field of work and thinking.
  • Work within different organisations. Loyalty is admirable. Movement and progression will keep your learning fresh. Remaining in organisations for long periods can lead to more insular thinking. If staying, put more focus on learning, spending time with different people in different areas.
  • Keep learning at the centre of conversations and language with your peers and teams.
  • Make debriefs a key part of your leadership approach. Learning will poor from these…
  • Use others – soundboard, coach, mentor. Get others insight into what is important.
  • Sound out peers on their development needs and create opportunity for small hits of learning and peer sharing.

Get a coach!

One of the most transformational personal development activities is coaching. Coaches listen, explore, challenge, identify and notice. In doing so they develop awareness, thinking, openness, creativity, change, opportunity and action in their clients. No other single development intervention is as impactful. Simple.

Leaders who seek out coaches are making healthy decisions for their own leadership growth.  So, coaching is not remedial or therapy. Coaching is for the performing, those who want to get even better in their leadership.

Additionally, coaching does not have to always involve external coaches. Peer to peer coaching can provide valuable learning moments for leaders too.

Formal leadership development

Business schools are a hothouse of current thinking, like minded peers and expert tutors. There are hundreds of organisations offering ‘executive education’. So the leader has to be discerning around their development needs and cost. What are their learning objectives? What development problem are they trying to solve? 

Being able to answer these will give some clarity to what course or programme would be most appropriate. Whilst business schools offer a lot, (as well as kudos), they do not always provide optimal conditions to draw meaningful lessons. They don’t easily offer one to one attention, or really consider application of learning to the leader’s organisational context. 

Where learning on a specific leadership area is required by more than one, bringing in the expertise can be a more cost effective option. Then using this learning to discuss and reflect on this with peers and reports

Increasingly, the use of Vocationally Related Qualifications (VRQs) to achieve leadership qualifications are a valid development route. Whilst classroom or online based, they require completion of assignments which need leaders to relate theory with their own organisational environments. This demonstrates competence. Providers such as ILM and CMI are at the vanguard of VRQs.

Online learning for leaders

Technology allows learning leaders to dip in too short or long term learning and development. To do hits of learning and then return to it when opportunity arises. Online platforms abound but more business related ones include – Udemy,, Coursera, eDX. MOOCs (massive open online courses) is an online model of delivering learning short course (usually free) content to any one who wants to sign up.

Online learning has a place, it still requires the leader to reflect and contextualise in order to get the best application of it.

Social learning

Social learning is more informal and indirect. If you are networking, don’t just meet people, ‘use’ them to tease out latest thinking and practice. Learning leaders will learn from the experiences of others (including mentors). Reflect on it and interpret to their own leadership environments. Also, learning from the success and mistakes of others.

This learning is also experiential. Once learning is occurring as a leader it involves experiential learning by engaging with reports, teams and peers, trying something and learning from that experience. Learning leaders are always learning, however they are also always sharing this with others, consciously or not.

Social learning challenges and prompts the brain in ways solitary, and classroom and online learning doesn’t.

Leaders are essential to organisations and employees. So, these leaders need to be as developed as they humanly can to give and get the best. Investing in their learning is an enabler to this success. If you are interest in becoming a learning leader, get in touch today to see how Abintus can help you.

Click here to see what stops many senior leaders from investing in their own development.

Nick Howell is a qualified coach and has trained hundreds of leaders and managers has trained and coached hundreds of leaders to help them be the leader they aspire to be for themselves and their organisations.